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West Virginia should seek flood-relief help

June 07, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

This coming Sunday at 4 p.m., the West Virginia Legislature will meet in special session to consider flood-relief measures for the southern part of the state - and for a look at the state's finances in general. Lawmakers must find a way to bridge the funding gap until video-lottery revenue arrives.

Legislators approved the legalization of 9,000 video-lottery machines and upped the maximum bet at racetrack machines from $2 to $5, anticipating millions in news revenues.

But passing the law authorizing those things didn't mean they would be implemented immediately, even though anticipated funds from those sources have already been plugged into the budget. Now lawmakers have to figure out what to do in the meantime.

The front-runner among various plans is the idea of borrowing $20 million to $40 million from national tobacco-settlement funds to pay for expenses at the beginning of the fiscal year. Administration Secretary Greg Burton said the money would be returned when the new lottery revenue begins to flow.

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But if the state has to borrow more than $40 million, Burton said, then "we've got more problems than cash-flow problems."

The unknown here is how much it will cost to make essential repairs to water systems and other municipal infrastructure in the flood-ravaged southern part of the state. In what are some of the poorest counties in the state, local budgets just can't cover a lot of this work.

We suggest that it's time for the state to make an appeal for charitable contributions to fund some of this work. Dollars collected from private sources are funds that won't have to be borrowed from the tobacco settlement, which may be needed down the road for other purposes.

It would be nice to be able to say that the tobacco settlement should be earmarked for stop-smoking efforts and other health-related matters. But the reality is that the state is still cash-poor and the settlement may be all that's keeping it solvent. The state should ask for help now.

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